Netflix can’t get enough of stand-up comedy – given their market research capabilities, what that really means is that it is the viewing public who can’t get enough. Comedy’s golden eras tend to run parallel with political strife, the 1980’s being a prime example. Given the off the charts nature of current world affairs, it should be little surprise to anyone that we’re seeing something of a boom at the moment, beamed directly into our living rooms via the streaming giant. The Degenerates, which follows The Standups (2017) and The Comedy Lineup earlier this year in switching the standard format out for episodic content, each featuring a different comic. Focusing the action to Las Vegas – where “degenerates were fucking invented” according to the Joe Rogan Experience regular Joey Diaz – we have six comics bound only by a title which suggests a departure from more family friendly, straight down the middle fare the likes of John Mulaney (The Comeback Kid, Netflix: 2015) or the seemingly endless reign of Adam Sandler.
It feels as though the spirit of Bill Hicks, a cult favourite revered by the likes of Frankie Boyle – who directly relates his youthful idolisation of the late comic in his own work – is in the room throughout each episode. What will surely now be known as degenerate comedy done right is too busy hilariously illustrating a point for anyone to notice the outrageousness of the statements – nobody knew this more than Hicks, who told his Southern Baptist Christian mother to “listen to the message, not the words.” The effect is transformative, Hicks’ skewering of popular figures of the day becoming less a takedown of individuals and more about the endlessly commercialised “third mall from the sun” we were coming to live on – there is no doubt his voice is one we could use right now, though it would seem these six comics have got the timely lambasting of society well covered.
Subversive perspectives on fatherhood, questionably progressive sexual opinions and modern takes on the put-upon straight guy form the core of opening act Big Jay Oakerson’s set. The 40 year old dresses like a young Bam Margera, but his opening joke taking issue with the pervasiveness of sleeping with 18 year olds – “that’s totally legal, but it still feels like I shouldn’t do it” – suggests he knows his way around dude culture enough to recognise the more toxic aspects. This brings balance to his later jokes about women, and his easy ability to riff on audience reaction creates a tight yet easy going set. Perhaps the biggest question he poses is the idea of paying lip service to progressive politics versus living such values without perhaps using politically correct terminology, an idea he explores discussing transgender issues. The idea begs self reflection and is sure to have those spanning the political spectrum squirming in their seats*.
With the audience well and truly warmed up, we get a change of tone with Brad Williams. It makes for interesting viewing in the wake of Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette – the Netflix special to end all specials where she told the world that self deprecation from the margins is “not humility, it’s humiliation.” He takes control of the narrative, as do most comedians who don’t fit the “typical” (straight/white/male) mold, by using his dwarfism to bring his set together, but the ridicule is generally cast towards how he is reacted towards, rather than himself. The butt of the joke are those who make assumptions about him, ditto his Chinese-American wife, and is all the better for it. It’s very much a “is he going to go there?” set that ends up taking you in a more unexpected direction, and he does not compromise the laughs for social commentary, instead managing to get both in for good measure.
Onwards to one of the highlights of the night, Yamaneika Saunders immediately establishes an energy palpable to the point that you forget about the screen as she draws you directly into the room. Establishing herself with a sensational riff about what she sees as the toughening effects of New York City where she claims she used to be a white woman before moving onto the hilarity associated with not losing her virginity until the age of 27, ensuring there is hardly room to breathe between laughs. Her infectious style makes for one of the series’ breakout performances, with fans sure to be demanding a full-length special from this comic talent.
Following on from Saunders is Liza Treyger, an up and comer who initially emits heavy millennial Iliza-Shlesinger-meets-Lena-Dunham vibes which quickly give way to her own sarcastic drawl. She may never breathe the f-word (the one that ends in -eminism) and begins her set recounting a curly fry choking incident, but there is little doubt of her card carrying credentials as she points out how weird it is that paying for porn is not the norm before tearing the house down with jokes about abuse and murder (quote about how it is mostly male perpetrators) and still managing to leave the crowd smiling. Her empowerment, derived from Brazilian waxes and lunging in the swimming pool, is contagious and her willingness to both engage with and deride millennial stereotypes makes her set accessible without compromising on the humour.
Talk about a change of pace – he’s definitely not politically correct and by the sounds of it, he’s done some shit, so it’s lucky Joey Diaz is disarmingly honest (“I could never be a sexual harasser….I’m not good in bed.”) and funny (“I’m 92 in cocaine years….I smoke weed because I’m fuckin’ broken”), even by comedian standards. Out of the lineup, he arguably shows the most raw heart in his performance with a set that begins being about a guy he robbed and kidnapped (“Who robs somebody when they invite them over for lunch? Me cos’ I’m a fuckin’ degenerate!”) and wraps up with a story about his wife unknowingly saving him from suicide by sleeping with him. The guy admits to kidnap and still has the audience applauding his candour later on as he transforms into the uncle everyone half wishes they had, the kind of guy you end up slamming shots within a back alley pub on day three of your bender. Diaz isn’t afraid to be who he is and he doesn’t care if that makes him a degenerate – just like the rest of the line-up, he is happy to throw stereotyped expectations out the window whilst maintaining that he is pretty old school. You might not agree with everything he is saying, but you can’t help but respect his delivery and laugh at the comedic truths he puts forth in spite of yourself.
In a sharp left turn, Christina P does not feel the need to explain herself, a departure from Diaz’s more ruminative style. She’s more interested in punching up, skewering the often still male dominated industry. A conventional Netflix special already to her name, not to mention a podcast, she’s arguably one of the more well known names in the lineup. Her timely, evocative and hilarious take on #MeToo and the President brings together the themes running throughout the night in outright conversation. She pulls no punches in holding power – you know which kind – to account. References to Ali Wong and Scooby Doo are enough to round this one off as a winner.
#MeToo and the ongoing cultural reckoning of the straight white male is arguably the most prevalent theme, with a prevailing disappointment in perpetrators, in particular, Louis C.K, accompanying more than one set. A range of perspectives across six half hour episodes allows for different views on similar subjects, keeping it fresh without ever calling the sentiment behind the movement into question. Nobody is asking for or justifying a seat at the table – there is a certain refreshment in watching subversive sets acknowledging the current political strife without using it as a crutch, and there is insight for those willing to hear it. Safe comedy doesn’t always contain a message just as raunchy comedy isn’t necessarily devoid of meaning. We often hasten to forget that what’s moral and what’s respectable don’t always see eye to eye – Joey Diaz perhaps captures it best as he directly muses on the title and declares himself “a degenerate with….morals, you gotta have a little morals.” Here’s a special that can join Hicks’ back catalogue in providing a constant reminder that the subjective nature of morality has never been so funny.
* side note: it is always worth putting out the reminder that it takes minimal effort to learn and use inoffensive terminology day to day, and such small acts could make someone’s day a lot easier. A useful guide can be found here: https://eu.usatoday.com/story/news/2017/03/16/feminism-glossary-lexicon-language/99120600/